You’ve probably seen the little ceramic statue of a friendly cat with one paw raised. The Maneki Neko is an age-old Japanese tradition said to bring good luck. The figurine is often placed by the front door of businesses and homes to welcome guests and attract wealth. Though the Maneki Neko originated in Japan, it’s now seen all over the world and is a popular collector’s item. The friendly cat can be found on many websites, and it’s often sold as a small good luck charm.
Maneki Neko Symbolism
Maneki Neko means “beckoning cat” in Japanese. There are actually two versions of Maneki Neko, each with different meanings. With its left paw raised, Maneki Neko welcomes customers and guests; with its right paw raised, Maneki Neko welcomes good luck and prosperity. Of course, people (and businesses) wishing to attract all of those things sometimes display both versions! Maneki Neko cats carry a scroll bearing the friendly message, “Please come in. You are welcome.” The Beckoning Cat is always adorned with a red ribbon around its neck.
It’s not known for certain whether the Maneki Neko is a male or female, but traditionally the cat is said to be a Japanese Bobtail. These ancient cats come in many different colors, but according to breeder Marianne Clark the original Maneki Neko statues were calico, or mi-ke which means “three fur.”
Legends of the Maneki Neko
There are many fascinating tales of the Maneki Neko’s origins, and though they differ in how this “Japanese Beckoning Cat” came to be, they all center around a friendly and heroic cat who brings good luck.
One such legend tells of a feudal lord who was riding through the countryside. He stopped for lunch near a temple and sat down under a tree. He soon noticed that one of the temple cats, a mi-ke Japanese Bobtail, had its paw raised and seemed to be beckoning him to come inside the temple.
Curious, the lord went inside and shortly after a storm came up. The tree he had been sitting underneath was struck by lightning. The feudal lord wanted to pay tribute to the little cat for beckoning him into the temple and thus, saving his life. From this legend, it’s easy to see why the Maneki Neko is called the “lucky cat of Japan.”
A similar legend of the Maneki Neko’s origins comes from the Gotokuji temple in Tokyo. It was 1615 and the temple was dilapidated from years of neglect. Though money was scarce, a kind monk took in a neglected cat who was also in need of care. A large group of samurai passed by the temple, led by Naotaka Li, heir to the Hikone Castle in Shiga. Naotaka was taking shelter from a storm under a tree when he was lured to the temple by the monk’s cat, Tama. As soon as he went inside the temple, the ground where he’d stood was struck by lightning. Grateful to the cat for saving his life, Naotaka vowed to support the poor temple and help it regain prosperity. Upon Tama’s death years later, the cat was buried at Gotokuji’s cat cemetery with due respect.
A third Maneki Neko legend tells of a famous Geisha named Usugumo, who lived during the Edo period and loved cats so much that she kept one with her at all times. Legend has it that one night her cat kept pulling insistently at the hem of her robe. Frustrated by this odd behavior, Usugumo called for help. Thinking the cat to be a goblin, an admirer rushed in and cut off its head. The cat’s head flew up to the ceiling and bit the snake that was hovering over Usugumo. The Geisha, deeply saddened by the death of the cat who had saved her life, was given a wooden image of the heroic feline. This was the Maneki Neko, with its paw raised to alert her to the danger.
It’s hard to say which, if any, of the legends of the Lucky Cat of Japan are true. However, one thing is for certain – the beckoning cat known as Maneki Neko is revered by the Japanese, by Americans, and by many other cultures around the globe.
Cat Fancy Magazine, August 2010